Art D.I.Y.

The World In Black & White: A Primer In Fishing Block Printing

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I’ve always been a little envious of those organized, decisive folks that just do things. I imagine that their world must be a simpler, more easily navigable place than mine. Instead of a whirling kaleidoscope of confusion and an infinite spider web of possible paths they see the obvious, straight and clear way forward. They are not sidetracked by distraction and paralyzed by infinite analyses that forever loop back upon themselves like a Moebius strip, leaving one back where one started.

I can get stuck – paralysis by analysis. Sometimes the simplest decisions can leave my brain reeling and wheels spinning. And so I simplify. Though I never really think about it consciously like that. I never said to myself “Hey I’m going to simplify”. It’s just that the less complicated a thing is the more likely I am to actually do it – it’s like there’s a low-pass filter on my life. More complicated things just don’t get past the filter. This doesn’t mean that I can’t get big projects done when we need to, it just means that I need to chunk things and work hard at not over-complicating it.  I’m not complaining. It takes all kinds of people to make the world go round.

So when it comes to leisure time and relaxation – the simpler things tend to be the ones that provide me with the most peace and enjoyment. So I tend to keep it simple when it comes to things like fly fishing. Not because I go out of my way to seek simplicity – but because at the end of the day I only have so much focus left.

When it comes to planning the next day’s fishing trip I’ve usually put it off to the last minute and I don’t have the focus or will to sort through 5 different kinds of leaders, numerous sighters and indicators, several spools with different fly lines for several different reels, multiple rods, a fly for every stage of every bug… you get the idea. It’s not that I don’t think about, or read about that stuff. I do. I love learning. But when it comes to actually implementing… well that’s where I can get stalled.

Tenkara sort of fell in place for me. It fit in my life very neatly. It was a happy accident.  The simple trappings of tenkara became the way I fished because it worked. Not just worked as a way to catch fish but because it worked in my life. This has all become startlingly clear to me now as I explore European nymphing and competition style fishing. I can feel things bogging down as I look at all the possible ways to make a nymphing leader. It is staggering really; the variety is simply staggering.

What does this have to do with printmaking? Well – maybe not a whole lot – but it does help explain how it’s become my creative outlet. It doesn’t get much simpler than black and white prints.  But the fly fishing/tenkara parallels go deeper than just the apparent simplicity.

The process of working on a linoleum block print for me is very deliberate and it forces me to break things down into basics. I have to look at positive and negative space and figure out a way to get my design done without the benefit of the color and shading, that painting and drawing allow. Of course you can do multi-color block printing – but I’m still working out the possibilities of one color (and that could take a lifetime).

The block printing process reduces variables and makes me focus and look at things differently, creatively. Just like tenkara did for my fishing with the limited tackle, fixed line and simpler rigging.

Getting Started

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I do not claim to be an expert printmaker. I had a class in printmaking while attending Penn State (I was a mechanical engineering undergrad) and relief block printing stuck with me. I’ve done it on and off since then but lately I’ve been doing it a lot more – tenkara and fly fishing have given me a wealth of inspiration and subject matter to work with. As with anything you can make relief block printing as complicated as you like – but I tend to keep it very basic and simple.

If you’d like to do some of your own block printing, it’s simple enough to get started and the basic tools and materials are not expensive. In Figure 1 above I show the basics tools and materials. There are kits available that will get you started for as little as about $15. Utrecht is a good place to find materials and kits online.

Relief block printing is a reductive process and theoretically be done with any material that can be carved. Common materials are wood, linoleum and rubber blocks.

Wood is more difficult to work with and to do it well it generally requires more expensive higher quality tools – though I have carved woodblocks with a basic utility knife before.

Linoleum is much easier to work with than wood because it’s softer and easier to cut.  Soft polymer blocks such as the Speedball Speedy-Carve are even easier to work with. Speedy-Carve and other similar polymer blocks are much like those white Staedtler Mars Plastic Erasers. If you went to school for engineering, like myself, you’re likely very familiar with those erasers.

If you’re new to block printing, I’d recommend the Speedy-Carve. It cuts like a dream with the basic linoleum cutters and requires very little force. Fine detail work can be a bit more difficult with Speedy-Carve than with linoleum, but still some very nice work can be done.

I’ve been using the Speedy-Carve myself lately because of my hands. Even working with the linoleum has been hard on my aging hands and wood is pretty much out of the question these days. Unless I want aching hands for weeks.

Next you’ll need paper, ink, a linoleum cutter, a brayer and a spoon. With linoleum you can use oil-based or water-soluble inks. With the polymer blocks you’ll have to use water-soluble ink. Unless you have a dedicated work space I would go with the water-soluble inks for the ease of clean up.

You’ll need a brayer for rolling and applying ink and some sort of inking plate for rolling it out. Many kits will come with these. The linoleum cutters come in various sizes and are gouge type cutters that you push. The shapes vary from very sharp “v” shapes to wider “u” shapes. I like to have several different blades installed in several handles handy while I’m cutting. That way I don’t have to keep removing and installing blades in the same handle. The handle that I show above comes with the blades, which can be stored inside the handle.

The graphite transfer paper is a non-greasy transfer paper for transferring images to the block. It works well on the linoleum but not on the Speedy-Carve. With the Speedy-Carve you can actually print an image with a laser or ink jet printer and then use an iron to transfer it to the block. This iron transfer didn’t work for me on linoleum with my laser printed images, perhaps inkjet print out could be iron transferred to linoleum (I didn’t try that). Of course you can always draw directly on the block or cut without drawing at all – but I usually don’t do that. I work on designs for a while usually.

So… The spoon. Many kits will come with a barren for hand printing your blocks. Inexpensive barrens are basically round plastic discs (about 3” diameter) with a handle. These are used to rub the back of the paper after placing it on the block to transfer the ink. I don’t use one. I prefer to use a simple metal spoon. As I work with small prints, I like the control of the spoon versus the larger barren.

A word on paper. My favorite paper to use is Unbleached Japanese Kitakata paper. Unbleached Kitakata has a warm natural tan color with interesting character and takes ink easily. Generally, the thicker the paper, the more difficult it will be to hand print your block. I get Kitakata in large sheets that I then tear to the needed sizes. You can also get good paper for hand printing in packages of smaller sheets.  The paper that I show in the figure above is a bleached Mulberry paper and it works well – though it’s not quite as easy to print on as Kitakata.

Design Process and Block Prep

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The great thing about block printing is that you can take simple design and through the process of cutting a block enhance it and give it great character. The act of cutting, even if you’re not that great at it lends an honest, earthy feel to the finished product. In this age of digital media I find the process of working with real materials grounding and meditative.

Usually I start with a hand drawn sketch such as in (1) above. Then I’ll usually scan it into the computer and using a vector program like Inkscape I’ll try various layouts and compositions. The bluegill print here was a simple composition so I really didn’t do much with the computer. In some more complex prints I’ll draw up different parts separately and then use the computer to manipulate the various design elements. It’s a great way to work on composition without wasting a lot of paper and erasers.

Remember while working on your design that any lines or areas that you want to appear as black (or whatever color ink you’re using) have to be left uncarved. So you need to think in reverse.

If you are going to use graphite transfer paper, you’ll need reverse your image (2) before transferring it – otherwise you’ll end up with a mirror image. To use the transfer paper just cut it to size and place it with the graphite side down on the linoleum block. Then place your reversed image on top (4) and trace with a ball point pen or a hard pencil. Tape the image and transfer paper down as you do this, otherwise you’ll never keep it from moving.

If you’re using the Speedy-Carve you can print your image on a printer and then place it face down on the block, cover with a blank sheet of paper, to protect any exposed areas of the block, and using a hot iron transfer it directly to the block. You’ll have to experiment to get find the temperature and amount of pressure needed to transfer it well.  You do not need to reverse the image if you’re using this method.

Carving the Block

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The first image (1) shows the block with the image transferred via the graphite transfer paper. Remember that the black lines will be left uncarved. At first you may find that making fine lines that way can be difficult, but just be patient and take your time. The linoleum cutters come in various sizes and shapes (2).

When cutting you’ll be pushing away from you. Be careful not to push too hard. You don’t have to carve very deep for the print to work. Try to plan your cutting so that you’re not cutting toward areas that you don’t want to remove. It will take a little practice but you’ll get the hang of it. I usually work on the main outlines (3) and then work outward from there. Also you don’t need to clean out every last bit in the open areas – leaving some evidence of your cutting actually can lend a lot of character to the finished product (4).


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To print you’ll place a small amount of ink or your inking plate and roll it out with the brayer. You just a want a thin coating on the brayer. If you get too much ink on it it will fill in the fine details of the block. You can always roll the inked brayer on some scrap paper if you’ve loaded it with too much ink. Once the brayer is properly inked you can roll the ink on the block (1). Make sure to roll the brayer in all directions over the block to get it properly inked. You can apply more ink to the brayer as needed. If you’ve got too much ink on the brayer it will become apparent as you ink the block. If so – no problem – clean it off and start again.

Make a “proof”. For a proof you can use printer paper – it’s not good for final prints but works okay for proofing. Carefully place the paper on the inked block and then use your spoon or barren to rub the paper and print the image (2). With a thin block printing paper, you’ll see the image appear as you work with the spoon (3). If you’re careful you can lift the paper at a corner and peek to see how the transfer is going and then lay the paper back down and do more rubbing. Large areas of ink will be the most difficult to transfer fully. You’ll get a feel for each individual block and paper type that you print. When you think it’s ready pull the paper off of the block (4).

If you’re printing a proof, you can now see what areas of the block may need more work. So clean the block and go back in with the cutters and work on any trouble areas. Repeat as needed. When your happy with the print then switch to your good paper and print the good prints. Sometimes as you’re printing, the fine details can get filled with ink. Clean the block before printing more.

If you’re using water soluble inks – cleanup is very easy using water. If using oil-based inks its more work. I like to use Gamblin Gamsol odorless mineral spirits for oil-based clean up.

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After the print has dried you can mat it for framing. The best thing is to plan the size of your prints so that they fit readily available pre-cut mats. Otherwise you’ll be getting into mat cutting, which is a pain in the butt, or paying to have it done, which can get pretty expensive.

Alternatively, buy a frame that comes with a mat – and make sure to plane the print size as mentioned.

So, that’s the basics. You can get more advanced and do multi-color prints with multiple blocks, or even hand colored prints. The possibilities are many.

Have Fun!

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This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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